Michigan, along with most other states, gives a surviving spouse certain guaranteed rights in the estate of a deceased spouse. These rights include the right to take a percentage of the estate, even if the deceased spouse’s will does not provide for the surviving spouse (“elective share”) or the right to a certain percentage of the estate when a deceased spouse dies without a will (“intestate share”). A surviving spouse also has a right to certain statutory allowances from an estate, which currently total $64,000.
Until recently, a surviving wife (but not a surviving husband) also had the right, in lieu of taking an intestate share, to a life estate in one-third of her deceased husband’s property. This rule, called “dower”, dates back to 1787, a time when women could not own property. It was intended to guarantee a wife some degree of support during widowhood.
Because of dower, a married man could not convey title to his property without his wife joining in the conveyance. If you are a married man who has ever sold property, you may have noticed that any deed of conveyance listed your marital status and required your wife’s signature, even if your wife was not a co-owner of your property. Her joinder in the deed was the only way to extinguish her dower rights in your property.
In recent years, many questioned whether the concept of dower was obsolete or, if it was not obsolete, whether it was fair when it applied to widows but not widowers. Women not only had their own jobs outside the home, but also (gasp!) could inherit, purchase, and own property in their own names. Some of them even started law firms! Many states began doing away with dower. The issue of dower was further complicated when in 2015 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, granting same-sex couples the right to marry. Because Michigan’s statute awarded dower rights to a widow but not a widower, dower rights would arguably apply to both parties in a lesbian marriage but to neither party in a gay marriage. Michigan had two practical choices: (1) follow the lead of other states and eliminate traditional dower or (2) change the statute to award dower to a surviving spouse, regardless of gender. On January 6, 2017, Michigan became the last state to abolish traditional dower.
With the abolishment of dower in Michigan, a wife no longer has to join in conveyances of her spouse’s property. However, a man’s marital status must still be stated on any deed, because the legislature failed to eliminate this requirement.
For those of you who may be concerned that this will leave a surviving wife high and dry, keep in mind that a surviving spouse – regardless of gender – still has a right to intestate share if a spouse dies without a will and, if a deceased spouse has a will that partially or fully omits the surviving spouse, the right to an elective share of the testate estate. A surviving spouse also still has the right to $64,000 in statutory allowances from the estate.